30 December 2013

Review: Fortune's Pawn

Fortune's Pawn
Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've read a lot of flawed science fiction over the years, and rarely are the flaws outright avoidable. Sometimes it's a concept, sometimes it's just an execution, sometimes it's just that it doesn't work for me. Fortune's Pawn has a lot going for it, and when it succeeds it soars. Much like a malfunctioning robosuit, however, when this book stumbles, it falls hard and leaves a pretty bad taste in your mouth.

Taking a little from Alien, a little from standard mercenary tropes, and a little from the internet, Fortune's Pawn is the adventure of Devi, a mercenary-for-hire who is brought in to a somewhat derelict ship for a year's worth of a security detail. The crew is all fairly unique, each with their own quirk, and some more deadly and illegal than others.

The first book in a three book series, the positives on this is that the story does take a pretty interesting urban fantasy attitude to a straight sci-fi tale. The story is cohesive, but brought together with smaller vignettes rather than a firm focus on one significant story. This means a lot of action in small sections, it means just enough exposition to get the idea without being bogged down too much in details, and there's a little bit for every sci-fi fan, from focus on technology to alien cultures.

The glaring issues, however, are noteworthy. One, this definitely has a "written-for-an-agenda" feel to it. Devi is a strong, independent, flawed, normal female hero, which is surely a breath of fresh air in a male-dominated genre. The problem is when the story won't let you forget how much of a breath of fresh air it is, hanging itself on being so progressive that it almost feels tacked on as opposed to organic. Alien comes to mind on this, where Ripley begins being a hero because she has to be, not because they needed to check a box. Devi, far too often, appears to come across as a "female hero" as opposed to a "hero that is female," if that makes sense. The arbitrary statements that come across as if they were lifted from a Tumblr screed rather than from a place where the narrative needs it. There are ways to do genre fiction without being preachy, and in an attempt to be inclusive it too often felt alienating.

The other big issue is more one of preference. The structure of the narrative, being more episodic than overarching, results in a lot of sections that do little to advance the plot beyond characterization that could have worked within a broader narrative. This is where the urban fantasy feel comes in, as the patchwork plotting adds to the story in some ways and detracts in others. Too often I was getting frustrated with scenes that kept me from learning more about the overall story, which shouldn't happen.

Overall, not a bad read, but not as good as it could (or should) have been. Will definitely appeal to a number of readers (especially fans of Jim C. Hines), but may turn off a lot of others in the process.

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23 December 2013

Review: Roomies

Roomies by Sara Zarr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've never read anything by either of these authors, but Sara Zarr in particular is held in high regard in many of my circles, and the idea of a team book about two girls who are headed to college and will be roommates was something that sounded pretty great.

The story alternates between the two girls. One, a more upper class girl looking for a good college time, the other a more middle/lower class girl from a large family who really wanted a single so she could escape from her life a bit. The two strike up a friendship over email as they get to their move-in day and experience each other's lives a little bit through each other in the process.

I liked a lot about this book. Everything felt realistic, and having it be written by two separate people meant that the two voices sounded distinct, which is often difficult to do. Overall, I have no complaints on the whole, but I did feel it ultimately got a little long, and perhaps didn't quite hit the mark emotionally with a lot of the ways the girls handled their individual situations.

These are all minor flaws in what should be a great read for most, and one I can wholeheartedly recommend.

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18 December 2013

Review: S.

S. by J.J. Abrams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I remember reading some column earlier this year about being older and not having your mind blown as often when it comes to music or books or general experiences because you've gotten so much experience and so much time with your surroundings that it becomes more difficult to be fully impressed. I found that pretty compelling, in part because it's true - my own personal mental exhaustion on a lot of things I used to have all sorts of energy for back in the day has certainly made it harder for me to truly be wowed by something the way, say, Kid A or High Fidelity or Sideways resonated with me years earlier.

I've read well over 300 books this year. A few, most notably Night Film and 2012's The Mirage, really impressed me beyond being simply enjoyable reads, but nothing I've read for quite some time has really stuck with me in a while.

Then came S. The product of a collaboration between media mastermind JJ Abrams and author Doug Dorst, it's a love letter to research, to conspiracy theories, to actual physical books. It's pretty brilliant.

There is not one story here. The book itself is by a fictional author, mysterious in an of himself. The book is a full, 400+ page novel called The Ship of Theseus, a frankly meandering tome that kind of goes all over the place. The story that goes along with it, however, are the margin notes of Eric and Jen, the former a disgraced graduate student who has spent nearly a decade on the authorship conspiracy and the latter a senior at the college looking to graduate soon but gets involved with Eric and the authorship issue.

Oh, and the authorship question? It may or may not be involved with a major international conspiracy .

Every inch of the book is a hint. The book itself is supposed to be a translation with coded references, the story of Jen and Eric takes place in the form of changes in the color of the ink in the margins, meaning we're watching two separate timelines unfold along with their relationship to the text and each other. They also litter the pages quite literally with different notes, printouts, postcards, pictures, and so on. All of these things add to the entire story as weird little found materials along the way. As someone who loves finding little funny quirks in research, having these little extras around was an absolute joy.

The book is certainly an all-time favorite for me. I grabbed it from the library, but I had bought a copy before I was even halfway through this read. It's not without its flaws, of course - the conceit requires a significant suspension of disbelief to start, and the timeline issue (there are occasionally four different tales happening at the same time on the same page) can be confusing from time to time. With that said, there's so much happening with it that I'm tempted to read the whole thing again when my own copy comes in the mail right away. It's that good, and I'm not one to reread books often at all.

A word to the wise - if you have an opportunity to get this from a library, be careful, as your library edition might have the pieces taken out of the book and thus they won't make a lot of sense unless you know what they're referencing. If you do, however, have an opportunity to read this at all, don't pass up the opportunity. I'm positive it's not for everyone, but this is one that's going to stick with me in terms of a fun, crazy read for a long, long time. Don't miss out.

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14 December 2013

Review: The Circle

The Circle
The Circle by Dave Eggers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

I might just be perceiving things differently, but I never considered Dave Eggers to be the type of author who is... direct. There's usually a lot of odd pseudo-stream-of-consciousness stuff or more experimental ideas, but the idea of a Dave Eggers novel that feels both modern and accessible feels kind of foreign.

The Circle is effectively Dave Eggers making an attempt at 1984 for the Google age. It's equal parts near-futurism, social commentary, and scaremongering cautionary tale, which means it's inherently readable and also kind of infuriating at the same time.

The story is mostly about Mae, a woman in her mid-twenties who is recruited to work at The Circle, a tech company in California best known for its search engine but is expanding into a bunch of different markets. Very quickly, Mae learns about how all-encompassing working at The Circle is - it's less a job as much as it is a way of life, and it's a way of life that The Circle wants to expand into the general population. During the course of the story, we see these thoughts, ideas, and intentions expand and see their impact on society as well as Mae's family and friends themselves.

The issue with this is that Eggers is very clearly aping 1984 in that The Circle is essentially how he views Google in a nutshell. We fear the dystopia of 1984 because it's people with actual control over us, but the fear from The Circle is less pronounced, so he essentially has to create it differently in order to make his point about voluntary surveillance. In Eggers's world, there aren't a lot of privacy-minded people, there basically aren't any internet trolls to speak of, and companies of tens of thousands inspire cultish devotion as opposed to dissent and discussion. It's not realistic - 1984 worked because we knew it was an extreme caricature of a possible future, while The Circle, at least in its own tone, feels as if it's describing an actual probable future, doing so with often-clunky dialogue and inorganic scenes that pulled me out of the narrative almost as quickly as I fell into it.

Overall, it's a good read in part because it's Dave Eggers, but it's a read that doesn't work because of a lot of its fatal flaws. Were it 300 pages and less preachy, maybe it would be more successful for me. As it stood, though, there was a lot to take issue with that dragged the whole narrative down.

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04 December 2013

Review: Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age

Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age
Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age by Mathew Klickstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In terms of my television consumption, I pretty much grew up on Nickelodeon. I loved Pinwheel when I was really little, ate up Rugrats and Doug and Hey Dude and Clarissa Explains It All and You Can't Do That on Television and Danger Mouse and...I could go on and on.

I was a big Nickelodeon fan.

Slimed is a book chock-full of interviews with pretty much everyone alive who was involved with the creation of the network as well as the actors and showrunners involved with all the classic shows. It's rather epic and exhaustive in its ability to find people involved, and it's a pretty solid oral history up there with the Live From New York oral history of Saturday Night Live from a few years back.

In terms of insider information, there's plenty there for everyone. Discussion of growing up on television, how people got paid, how Double Dare worked, the slime, the awards...one could go on and on and on with how much information is in this book, which is pretty great as a first-hand account.

The downside is that the book doesn't detail who does what until the end, which makes following the narrative a pain. Chances are you know who Melissa Joan Hart played. But do you really know the name of the actor who played Donkey Lips on Salute Your Shorts? Or even the showrunners for some of these programs? I didn't, and having to flip around constantly was frustrating.

Overall, a pretty great read. Definitely perfect for television buffs and nostalgia lovers alike.

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02 December 2013

Review: Summer Knight

Summer Knight
Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I continue to be absolutely shocked at how much more I'm enjoying this series from book to book.

Summer Knight takes place a year after Grave Peril, and Harry's not in a good place. He's still trying to sort out the negative repercussions of the end of the previous book, and now even the Wizard Council is more than a little upset. Harry's got a massive, massive target on his back both professionally and personally, and it's not really clear how he'll work it out.

What I Liked: The unpredictability, because so many of the situations Dresden ends up have no obvious exit. It's continually impressive that the situations work out the way they do, good or bad. Plus, there continues to be real danger. People have struggles, Harry seems very mortal still, and so on. I also liked that we got a lot of background regarding the warring factions, as well as some good internal politics. I love me some internal politics.

What I Didn't Like: For as much as I can praise the series for making Harry fallible and experiencing consequences for his actions, it's becoming kind of standard that he finds some bizarre, unique way to weasel out of every situation. For the sake of my sanity at this point, I hope that improves.

Overall, another quality volume in what's fast-becoming a favorite series for me. I hate that I've decided one a month is enough for me, because I really would just mainline all of these at this point.

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25 November 2013

Review: The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling

The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling
The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling by David Shoemaker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the last year, I've been roped back into the world of professional wrestling. A rite of passage for any preteen boy as is, it's decidedly uncool as a thirtysomething, but being older now I've come to appreciate a lot of the unique storytelling aspects that go along with the goofy lowbrow craziness that comes with the sport format.

David Shoemaker is best known for his Deadspin "Dead Wrestler of the Week" pieces as well as writing a regular column for Grantland on the ins and outs of the WWE. It's probably my favorite feature on Grantland these days if only because he appears to be the only mainstream writer taking wrestling seriously, and giving him a full length book opportunity to discuss the topic was something I had to jump at.

The book follows two parallel paths. One of the paths is a detailed history of professional wrestling in America, running from the early stages of the genre through the territorial system and in through the Attitude Era of the WWE. The book is near perfect in this regard - it takes a very straightforward, sober look at the ups and downs of the industry, staying serious while being unafraid to come down on some of the more ridiculous or negative turns. While not fully exhaustive, it is surprisingly detailed and might very well be the best printed piece on the subject we have.

The other portion of the book is a series of reprints, contextually located in the era the book is covering, of the "Dead Wrestler" columns from Deadspin. Seeing as I hadn't read these again since my return to the wrestling fold, they were an interesting look back, but they were also pieces I had already read. As Shoemaker may be catching an audience that he didn't previously have, I'm not completely against the reprints here, but, in this case, it felt less like a value add and more like padding for a book that would have understandably been shorter without them.

Really, though, the strength of the book is the context. There's a wealth of information here for anyone who isn't versed in the history of wrestling promotions, and it's a book I can see lending to a number of people who are interested more in the bigger picture than just a bunch of oversized men fake fighting on television. It would benefit from some more information from the last few years, but, as a whole, an excellent read anyone who has had any interest in wrestling, past or present, to give some time.

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24 November 2013

Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5, I'm as surprised as you are.

Michael Pollan is one of those food types who has spent a lot of time pushing a lot of anti-scientific ridiculouslessness, especially about genetic modifications of food. It makes it difficult to take a lot of what he has to say at face value, as well as his approaches on issues of food and the "right" way to do agriculture and food gathering.

On the other hand, there's nothing inherently wrong with his point of view regarding the moral, ethical, or even preferential issues with food collection and production. You don't need to be a slave to science while still being uncomfortable with some of the practices in agriculture and meat production. Pollan truly spends more of his time in this book on those issues than real science.

So The Omnivore's Dilemma, in a sense, is a great book when you look at it through the lens of someone who is interested in understanding their food. The production aspects (good, bad, or indifferent), the historical contexts of agriculture, and so on, they're all really interesting reads.

Where Pollan falls flat, beyond his lack of credibility on the scientific aspects, is his connections. He spends a significant amount of time with Joel Salatan of the Polyface Farm, someone who is one of those crunchy libertarian types, but you'd never really understand that most of his problem is regulatory rather than about the actual food supply. He spends some time with ethicist Peter Singer, who is extremely controversial with some questionable points of view on everything, although you'd never know it reading the text. Even nods to PETA and such along the way certainly pulled me out of the text a bit - you can have a serious nonfiction read about food, or you can go along with unserious sources and points of reference. You can't have both.

Overall, I'm surprised to say that this is worth reading. Whichever direction you fall in the basic debates, you'll probably find something of value. There is a "reader beware" concept to go along with it, but it's not enough to toss this into a pile, never to be seen again.

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06 November 2013

Review: Grave Descend

Grave Descend
Grave Descend by John Lange

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a freak of nature of sorts growing up. I learned how to read before I was three years old, and I was reading books for "adults" by the time I hit third or fourth grade. While the first true "adult" book I read was The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, the first mainstream adult fiction I read was actually Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Right around when the movie came out, I became a full-on Crichton addict, tearing through pretty much everything he had under his name (yes, that included fourth grade me reading Disclosure and learning much more about sexual harassment than I needed to). I'm not sure if I ended up liking The Andromeda Strain or Sphere more when it was all said and done, but there was a fair amount of time where I would have considered Crichton my favorite author.

Crichton passed away a few years ago, and Titan Books is re-releasing a number of his pulpy adventure novels he wrote under the pen name John Lange as part of their Hard Case Crime imprint. Grave Descend takes us on an expedition to the sea with a man who is an explorer of sunken ships. He has been hired on to explore the wreckage of the yacht Grave Descend, but there are a lot of conflicting stories surrounding the wreck. To make matters worse, the competing interests seem pretty angry, and there may be some cargo on the ship that is causing a lot of the grief.

The story is extremely simple, which is kind of the point. It's a pulpy, fast-paced thriller of a book that wastes little time with exposition or unique dialogue, instead going straight for the point. This might not sound entirely enjoyable, but in terms of it being a novel from a certain era looking at a certain type of motif, it works really well. It actually reminded me a bit of the beach-type stuff in the Daniel Craig Casino Royale, if that makes any sense - just a rollicking, punchy good time.

Having read a number of the Hard Case Crime books from Titan at this point, this isn't better than the Stephen King Joyland publication from earlier this year, but is miles ahead of the Harlan Ellison piece. Crichton, even with his faults, was a talented writer, and it's a nice historical piece here to get an idea of what his writing was like outside of the scientific/biological thrillers he's known for. If you're picking these up for the writing, you're doing it for the wrong reason, as they're not really great stories. They are, however, fun, short diversions with the added benefit of the writer being a well-known legend in the community.

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Review: Grave Descend

Grave Descend
Grave Descend by John Lange

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a freak of nature of sorts growing up. I learned how to read before I was three years old, and I was reading books for "adults" by the time I hit third or fourth grade. While the first true "adult" book I read was The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, the first mainstream adult fiction I read was actually Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Right around when the movie came out, I became a full-on Crichton addict, tearing through pretty much everything he had under his name (yes, that included fourth grade me reading Disclosure and learning much more about sexual harassment than I needed to). I'm not sure if I ended up liking The Andromeda Strain or Sphere more when it was all said and done, but there was a fair amount of time where I would have considered Crichton my favorite author.

Crichton passed away a few years ago, and Titan Books is re-releasing a number of his pulpy adventure novels he wrote under the pen name John Lange as part of their Hard Case Crime imprint. Grave Descend takes us on an expedition to the sea with a man who is an explorer of sunken ships. He has been hired on to explore the wreckage of the yacht Grave Descend, but there are a lot of conflicting stories surrounding the wreck. To make matters worse, the competing interests seem pretty angry, and there may be some cargo on the ship that is causing a lot of the grief.

The story is extremely simple, which is kind of the point. It's a pulpy, fast-paced thriller of a book that wastes little time with exposition or unique dialogue, instead going straight for the point. This might not sound entirely enjoyable, but in terms of it being a novel from a certain era looking at a certain type of motif, it works really well. It actually reminded me a bit of the beach-type stuff in the Daniel Craig Casino Royale, if that makes any sense - just a rollicking, punchy good time.

Having read a number of the Hard Case Crime books from Titan at this point, this isn't better than the Stephen King Joyland publication from earlier this year, but is miles ahead of the Harlan Ellison piece. Crichton, even with his faults, was a talented writer, and it's a nice historical piece here to get an idea of what his writing was like outside of the scientific/biological thrillers he's known for. If you're picking these up for the writing, you're doing it for the wrong reason, as they're not really great stories. They are, however, fun, short diversions with the added benefit of the writer being a well-known legend in the community.

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05 November 2013

Review: The In-Between

The In-Between
The In-Between by Barbara Stewart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I have a complaint about current young adult trends, it seems like it's that things go dark not because they have to, but because the author wants to. The In-Between is one of those books that I liked less the longer I thought about it, and introduces a lot of stuff that didn't really feel necessary to get to its point.

Our lead character is a girl, Elanor, who failed in a suicide attempt. She meets another girl who is an interesting influence on her, and Elanor's life becomes obsessed with this new girl at the center of it. Things go darker and darker, and questions start to rise about this new girl and her impact on Elanor's well-being.

There's a part of me that wants to blow the whole plot open to explain why this book was so strange and unsettling. A lot of the plot points felt like they were trying to be deliberately shocking as opposed to a good reason for character development. They went to a lot of places they didn't have to go in order to get there, and it just didn't work well for me.

I know a few readers who would probably really enjoy this. It has its audience, but I'm not convinced at all it's good for a discerning reader who will likely see through the contrived plot steps along the way. Not something I can actively recommend.

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04 November 2013

Review: Grave Peril

Grave Peril
Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5, but the short answer for Grave Peril is that I ain't afraid of no ghost.

The plot of this volume gets a little more complicated than previous volumes. On one hand, we've got vampires. Lots and lots of vampires. A vampire court. Vampires. I wasn't initially excited about the prospect, because vampires, but Jim Butcher hasn't steered me wrong yet, and it wasn't long before we got to the other hand: crazed ghosts wreaking a lot of havoc and problems throughout Chicago.

The one negative I've found with The Dresden Files so far is the way Butcher establishes his world. There are rules and issues to follow, and occasionally we'll be pulled out of the narrative, often by Harry himself, to explain them. That sort of establishment is not very organic at times, and falls into the key issue I've had with urban fantasy to start - the almost automatic need to make sure the worldbuilding is secure because it's not standard majestic sword and sorcery.

This isn't always a bad thing. Part of what makes Dresden work is Harry's need to follow the arcane rules of the magical world around him, and it introduces a lot of danger not only for him, but now for others around him. Could they be introduced in a better way in the narrative? Sure, why not? With that said, the only urban fantasy I've read so far that hasn't gotten hung up in that sort of descriptive speedbump is Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead, which is arguably not a traditional urban fantasy anyway. It might just be part of the genre, and that's okay.

With all that said, my criticisms feel a little empty because this book was even better than the first two, and watching the trajectory of these stories continue to rise even as things get a lot more complicated? It's great, especially in comparison to my last readthrough of The Wheel of Time, which could charitably be called painful at some times. At 340 pages, it never felt overdone, the last 100 pages may as well have been pure action, and it's fun to see smart, heroic characters making choices that you expect smart, heroic characters to make, even when they don't necessarily work. Kudos to Butcher as well for continuing to put his characters in real danger and giving real consequences to the actions made. A great gut punch occurs in this book that wasn't anticipated for me at all, and it was both stunning and refreshing.

I am so glad I'm reading these, and moreso that I'm enjoying them as much as I am. I actually can't wait for the next volume at this point.

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Review: Burning Paradise

Burning Paradise
Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of times, we read science fiction for the escapism aspect or the cool futurist ideas, or even just as a reflection on current society. It's a much more simple exchange for me, where I enjoy science fiction more for the ideas and worldbuilding than I do for a specific message. When a book that has something to say comes along while also filling in a lot of those gaps for me, all the better. Robert Charles Wilson is probably best known for his modern sci-fi classic Spin, but I became a big fan following his alternate history/science fiction end-of-oil society mashup Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America from a few years ago. Seeing that Burning Paradise was coming soon, I looked forward to reading it. The book spends a lot of time on communications, but it actually feels more analogous to what we know so far about the upcoming Almost Human television show.

In the world of Burning Paradise, pretty much all the negative stuff that happened in the twentieth century of the United States didn't happen. No World Wars, society is in great shape, and so on. The problem is that the situation is entirely manufactured, as there is some sort of life form in the atmosphere that has been impacting our relationships on earth with subtle changes to our memories, our actions, and our future. When this was discovered, most of those who discovered it were killed, and the rest scattered into hiding. Unfortunately for them, this life form is now on earth in humanoid sim form, and they're out to make sure the secret stays intact.

I couldn't stop thinking about Almost Human while reading it, only because the themes of distrust of simulated android-type beings was kind of jolted into me from the constant commercials for the show. It's not the fairest comparison, though, because the story Wilson tells is one more of worldwide conspiracy and trust than a science fiction police procedural. The book is imperfect, but it works in that regard - it's an interesting, albeit unoriginal, concept told in a very engaging way. It puts all its cool ideas up front and mixes them in well with a plot that's surprisingly action-oriented.

I think my issues with the book, overall, come more from the expectation Wilson brings to his work than anything else. This wouldn't feel so pedestrian coming from an unknown, and while the book is very good, I've come to expect bigger and broader ideas at this point. If anything, this might be a good alternative entry point for Wilson's works than Spin, especially for readers who may be adverse to harder science fiction. Without a super-high concept or significantly unrealistic settings, it's a nice tweak to an existing formula.

Overall, definitely recommended. Will rightfully be heralded as one of the better science fiction books of 2013, and a fine addition to Wilson's body of work so far.

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Review: Athlete vs. Mathlete: Double Dribble

Athlete vs. Mathlete: Double Dribble
Athlete vs. Mathlete: Double Dribble by W. C. Mack

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While I enjoyed the first book in this series, I'll admit to not having incredibly high expectations for the second book. The initial read was a fairly inoffensive middle grade sports book that fits right into the wheelhouse of that boy reader looking for sports books that are a little more modern. While one could take issue with the somewhat unrealistic and disproportionate responses of some of the characters to the happenings in the story, a lot can be easily forgiven. The second book still runs into that issue somewhat, but it's still a much more cohesive story with a more realistic start and finish than the first book, to its benefit.

The twins from the first book now have the streak happening with the basketball team, and things are going swimmingly until another pair of twins moves into the district and get placed on the team. They're completely in sync and somewhat aloof, and the existing twins aren't too pleased about being displaced on the team, even if they recognize that the new members are better than they are on a whole. The story continues along with the kids learning to cope (or, in some cases, not cope) with the unexpected changes in the story.

The kids do come up with some really mean ways to deal at some points, but the overall finishing message is not terrible at all, and this story overall flows much better and works on more levels than the debut volume. The idea of "Athlete versus Mathlete" has been pretty much abandoned at this point, however, as it comes out more as "jock problems" than using the combined strengths of the two kids to solve their problems. Overall, probably close to a 4.5, and definitely worth a look for this age group.

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31 October 2013

Review: The Naturals

The Naturals
The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I do find myself becoming somewhat tired of the "school age kid is X, and is enrolled in special school Y" trope that comes across so often, I was still drawn in by the concept behind "The Naturals." I was hoping that its spy/intelligence aspects would deliver in a way the "Gallagher Girls" series has for me. While there is a lot to like, both in terms of pacing and in story, the book ultimately suffers from being more formulaic than groundbreaking, and more procedural than promising.

The story is about a girl, Cassie, who is somehow pretty solid at reading people. Her mother was murdered years earlier, and the case remained unsolved, but the FBI has taken notice of her standing and recruits her to join a program where teens try to break the code on a series of cold cases. The kids in this program are also unnaturally good at certain aspects of psychological activity (like being able to read/influence emotions), and things get a little more serious a lot quicker than anyone thought.

Cassie is a great character, and the concept behind this entire idea is worthwhile. Where the book stumbles a bit, however, is where it stops feeling special. There are some fantastical/science fictional elements to the plot, for sure, but those are very quickly tampered down in favor of a more NCIS/Law and Order style procedural drama/thriller atmosphere that doesn't quite work with the tone or setup. If the book chose one route or the other, it may have been a lot more successful, but where the story instead tries to be all things to all people in a sense, it just left too much to the side in favor of playing the standard crime drama card.

Flaws and all, it was a good read, just not great. I do look forward to the next volume regardless, in hopes that things might get streamlined a bit, but this ultimately missed the mark somewhat for me.

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28 October 2013

Review: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools
Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I can't remember the last time I was so frustrated reading a book. I don't like to say a book is one star very often, because I believe one star represents some sort of irredeemable qualities that cannot be rescued. Sadly, this is one of those books, as it's a pile of strawmen in a heap, knocked over by ridiculous conclusions and poor logic.

On the basic stuff, I actually found myself nodding in agreement with her. There are a lot of myths about education reform that should probably be addressed, there is a problem with testing, with Common Core, with all sorts of different ways to address it.

And then comes the "schools are being privatized by corporate interest groups" conspiracy theory.

It's like someone talking about global warming, making a ton of great points, and then blaming the whole thing on moon men. After spending pages talking about what is and isn't a problem, the solution is to say there isn't really a problem, teachers and education are better than they've ever been, and those evil ALEC corporate funded stooges are lying to you about all of it while privatizing public schools beneath our noses. Vouchers? ALEC-positioned attempts to get public money in private schools. Merit pay and tenure reform? ALEC-positioned attempts to run schools more like the businesses that now apparently own them. Common Core? Corporate enrichment by Bill Gates. There are great arguments for and against all of these things. Ravitch fails to make them, instead choosing to address arguments no one is seriously making and ensuring that she positions those who disagree with her as pro-business stooges.

The issue is not so much with her research (although there have been some murmurings about that) but with her conclusions. Beyond the conspiracy theorizing, her position is profoundly anti-technology, anti-reform period (except when it benefits whatever standard position she holds), and pro-expansion of the only things both sides of the debate agree with, yet she does not. For as much as she feels her position is based in data, her strong feelings toward universal preschool (and things that look like Head Start even though she doesn't name it as such) is especially baffling.

Overall, this is not a book that's worth your time. Even an education extremist as myself who really thinks the entire system needs to be imploded and reworked from the bottom up recognizes that it's an extreme position at its core. Ravitch not only fails to recognize her errors and her issues with the conclusions, but considers herself in the position of the stalwart defender of a system that, because it's working better than ever, needs few changes outside of the ones that would benefit her preferred groups. Very unfortunate.

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25 October 2013

Review: The Incrementalists

The Incrementalists
The Incrementalists by Steven Brust

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's something to be said about high concept science fiction and fantasy. I love books with big ideas, and a lot of them work while a lot of them do not. The Incrementalists is not really positioned as a Big Idea book, but in a lot of ways it's exactly what it is. While big Big Idea is cool, the result ends up a little too formulaic for what I was looking for.

The book is about a group of people who have figured out a way to manipulate the memories of the world in small ways, incrementally. One of their members effectively goes off the deep end a bit, and it's up to the rest of the group to figure things out and, in a sense, save themselves in the process.

The idea and concept behind the group of people is great. I like the idea of a small cadre of people being able to manipulate memories and change things around, I thought the characters themselves, when they were distinguishable, were fun. The book is incredibly self-contained, however, with some strange choices throughout. The shifting of memories and personalities throughout is meant to be disorienting, I think, and it succeeds, but not in a good way but rather a frustrating one. The most troublesome part for me, though, is that this grand idea is effectively boiled down to a speculative murder mystery as opposed to something interesting and significant within the world itself.

Ultimately, not a bad read, just underwhelming. It was a significantly fast read for me on a whole, and it's worth checking out if the idea grabs you. I was just hoping for more.

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21 October 2013

Review: The Twelve

The Twelve
The Twelve by Justin Cronin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

I really, really enjoyed The Passage. I thought it was a solid modern take on the vampire genre and was a fun read overall. The Twelve, somehow only a middle book in the series, suffers a bit from being a little more allegorical and a little less direct in how it goes about its narrative. Middle book syndrome or an idea that exhausted itself? I don't know.

Regardless, the book jumps around timeline-wise a bit to give us more backstory on the main vamps, and to get into an infiltration scheme to turn the tide a bit. We meet a ton of new characters, we learn about more human interactions with the virus as opposed to the solid government conspiracy angle of The Passage, and, to its credit, we get a really fascinating conclusion to the whole thing.

The number one issue I had with the book is that it somewhat betrays the initial idea in The Passage. It stops being that conspiracy book and becomes something incredibly different, and while that different story is good, it would have worked better had it not been attached to the existing plot. It has a very World War II infiltration feel to it in a lot of ways, which I'm not sure was the intent, but was something I walked away with a bit. It just took too long to get there, even though "there" was a good time.

Overall, a solid read, although definitely flawed. As there's supposed to be a third volume sometime, I have no clue where it will go based on this ending, but I'll still go and pick it up. Hopefully the third one brings things back around to where the first was plot-quality-wise.

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17 October 2013

Review: The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible

The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible
The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible by Neil O Connelly

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 2.5 for me.

There's a mixed history for me with prose superhero stories. Some, like Austin Grossman's Soon I Shall Be Invincible, work within the framework of the stories it is trying to ape in prose to come up with a good story. Some, like Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart, subvert those tropes in a way that speaks to the stories it is mimicking, but with a good twist. The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible tries to be the latter more than the former, but with a slightly different twist to it. While it tries, in a sense, to be a character study of an older, aging superhero (think an adult version of Mr Incredible from The Incredibles), the book comes across more like a McSweeney's-fication of the superhero prose genre than anything else, and it doesn't always work.

The story is pretty basic in the regards that Commander Invincible is older now, and a lot of the threats that he's accustomed to are gone. Yes, superheroes are still a thing, but supervillains not so much. Plus, home life isn't so great for the Commander, with his wife possibly seeking something different and his kids feeling detached. Commander Invincible chooses the path of trying to reassert his relevance while balancing everything else going on in his world.

On the surface, this is really less a book about superheroes than it is a book about getting old within a superhero universe. In that aspect, it does succeed to a point, as it does the one thing that many superhero stories in general do not attempt, and that's bring a level of humanity to the heroes themselves. The problem is that this book overplays its hand more than a little bit in trying to subvert the genre in favor of the narrative it has drawn. There's a significant "get on with it" feel to the entire story that exists throughout the whole thing, choosing to be a deeper character study than a story. It's a choice that doesn't always work, and (especially when it comes to a genre like this) almost feels like false advertising.

When I say it's like "the McSweeney's-fication" of the trope, I mean it in that it feels like it's intentionally throwing a curveball with a wink and a nod to a more literary audience even though everything else suggests people who are looking for a funnier take on an existing idea. Sometimes that works, but this, unfortunately, did not. If you're looking for superhero stories that don't do the same thing over and over, there are a few out there worth noting. If you're looking for coming of age and superheroes, there are probably better comic books that figure this out as well. As for this, it's a good shot that simply didn't work for me at all.

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15 October 2013

Review: Dracula Cha Cha Cha

Dracula Cha Cha Cha
Dracula Cha Cha Cha by Kim Newman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, to get it out of the way, this might be the worst title for a book I've ever encountered.

It makes sense in the story, as it's a reference to something somewhat specific, but still, I'm glad they did a change to the title later. The story actually completes (to a point, apparently) the story started back in the first book, where this takes place close to Dracula's impending wedding in the 1950s. A lot of loose ends are tied, some new ones created, but it's a complete story for the first time.

I liked this one a lot more than the first two books, in part because of the plot being more cohesive, in part because I liked the setting more, but mostly because things actually happen in this book, which was not as evident in the first two. Part of it may be this book's age, which is only about 15 years out as opposed to the 20+. Part of it might just be that it's a better book. Part of it might lend itself to the fact that an endpoint exists and the plot actually moves toward it. Could be any of those reasons, but, regardless, I was rewarded for sticking with the series (even though it wasn't bad for most of it).

The next (last?) book is Johnny Alucard, and I'm interested to see how it fits in with a story that feels finished. We'll see...

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13 October 2013

Review: United We Spy

United We Spy
United We Spy by Ally Carter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's ultimately rare that a final book in a long-running, highly-regarded series can leave you completely satisfied, never mind possibly be the best entry in the overall series. United We Spy does both, and does it so well that I'm genuinely sad that the story is complete.

Essentially, the problems that kept arising in the most recent books finally come to a head. No one can be trusted, there are bombings and murders, and Cammie is essentially forced to lead the charge with her Gallagher Girls to try and save her friend while also maybe sort of kind of having to disrupt plans to usher in World War III.

No big deal, right?

Some of the earlier books spent too much time keeping the foot off the gas, but United We Spy really hits the ground running and doesn't stop until the last few pages. We get a sense of danger that hasn't really existed throughout the story, some sophisticated plotting, and a good balance of fun, suspense, and surprises. It's crafted incredibly well, and I really can't complain.

This has always been a favorite series of mine, and I'm glad to see that there's no real letdown to speak of. It's a really strong achievement, and I'm glad that there's nothing here to disappoint. If you've been holding off on finishing this series, you'll be doing yourself a disservice at this point. One of the best young adult books of the year.

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10 October 2013

Review: Steelheart

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Man, is Brandon Sanderson good or what?

I will reflexively read anything he puts out there, so that I'd read and probably enjoy Steelheart is no surprise for me. What I didn't expect was such a solid start for someone who's known more for fantasy than sci-fi in his first solid young adult effort.

The idea behind the book is fun: the nation is effectively run by supervillains, or "Epics," and the one running Chicago is Steelheart. Steelheart killed David's father, and David wants in with the insurgent opposition group, The Reckoners, to get his revenge. The problem is that Steelheart appears to be invincible. The wrinkle is that David's seen Steelheart get hurt before, and thinks he can do it again.

It's a fun, fast-paced ride in every way. The story flows extremely quickly from one point to the next, it's dark without being super negative, it has a lot of good action scenes to go along with some great worldbuilding, which is a standard of Sanderson. Just great.

We have to wait until next fall for the sequel, and that makes me sad. Alas...

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08 October 2013

Review: Blythewood

Blythewood by Carol Goodman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Blythewood is a strange, different YA book that involves a magical school and witches and all sorts of creepy things. This is a long-standing trope among this age group, and yet this book works significantly better than most of them, creating a rich world with a lot of unexpected happenings.

The plot is fairly basic: after Avaline's mother commits suicide following her survival from the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Avaline is brought to a boarding school - the same one her mother was expelled from as a child, and there she learns more about her own life, her mother, and a lot of details about things she never understood before.

This works because it has an epic-style length and still moves at a pretty breakneck pace. Avaline is a great character, the school is mysterious and interesting without being a retread, and there's equal parts whimsy and craziness. I read this some time ago, and many of the themes and situations still resonate extremely strongly in my mind.

I wish I had a lot more to say about this book except that I really, really loved this book. If you enjoy stories with magic and fantasy, and are looking for something a little more mature for the YA age group, grab this one immediately.

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03 October 2013

Review: The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave
The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Literally one of the better alien invasion novels I've ever been able to read. I enjoyed Rick Yancey's Alfred Kropp series quite a bit, but the size and scope of this one was putting me off for a while. Thankfully, a few people recommended it, I dove in, and quickly mowed down about 300-odd pages in the first sitting.

It's that good.

The story is pretty simple. An alien spaceship comes to earth, kills off a small number of people in an EMP in the first wave, and a larger group in the second, and so forth. We follow Cassie and her little brother as they work toward survival in this new world where the aliens are taking over.

The book is solid. It's fast-paced, plenty of action, it doesn't shy away from good sci-fi elements, and it stays well within the young adult universe while doing so. It reads like YA, which feels a little off-putting given the subject matter and some of what occurs, but it's less like a book and more like an action movie in structure. Plus, nothing seems overdone. There's a lot to keep you guessing throughout, and the setup is ripe for a sequel.

Overall, a solid A. I don't know what I would have preferred to make it even better, but at this point I'm just grasping at things. If you want a solid, quick sci-fi read for an age group sorely in need of books like it, The 5th Wave is absolutely it. Can't wait for the sequel.

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30 September 2013

Review: The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett

The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett
The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett by Tom Angleberger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my favorite middle grade reads is Frindle. A story about a kid who bucks authority by calling a pen a "frindle," I always thought that the book (and most of Andrew Clements's school stories) were way more anti-authority than teachers would accept. Alas, Frindle is almost 20 years old, but The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett has come at exactly the right time to carry that torch.

The cynic in me thinks this is more an attempt to stake out a certain place in the broader debates over Common Core and standardized testing than to continue the story of Dwight and Origami Yoda, but I'm willing to forgive it because it's so well-done and so much fun. Given that the school didn't do so hot on their standardized tests, the principal has chosen to more or less eliminate electives in favor of test prep, complete with extremely hokey and poorly done videos and worksheets. The kids want their electives back, so it becomes a seesaw back and forth as the kids threaten to tank the tests, or to not improve, and the story is a war of attrition throughout without a clear conclusion.

There's a lot to like here, from putting the controversies around standardized testing in the forefront of the plot of a book a lot of kids will read, to the continually unique names of the origami Star Wars characters. The faster-than-usual pace combined with the message allows me to overlook some of the flaws and the fact that agenda-driven fictional books (especially for kids) often leave me uncomfortable.

Overall, a great addition to the series. Definitely looking forward to the next volume as well.

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Review: Fool Moon

Fool Moon
Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Storm Front was good, but Fool Moon was great!

Fool Moon, if the title didn't tip you off, involves werewolves. The Dresden universe werewolves are a little different than the ones I'm familiar with (spoiler alert: werewolves have never been my thing), but there are some people who take on a more bestial quality, some that are super strong, the "loup-garou" (French for werewolf, naturally), and so on that are involved in a number of murders in Chicago. Harry Dresden, of course, is on the case, and onward we go from there.

What I liked: I complained a bit in the first book about the lack of danger. While I know there are a number of books left, there's was a solid feeling of danger for Harry throughout. He's shot, he's wheeling and dealing with demons, he's getting stabbed, possibly eaten...I knew he'd come away with his life intact, but there's absolutely no guarantee he'll come through clean, and that feels rare, even if it might not be.

I also like that the book is very clearly setting up little plot points for the future. Some are big, like the deals with the demon for Dresden's True Name, and some smaller, such as a certain person escaping to the Northwest at the end of the book or the abilities of the FBI. It's great to see some stuff laid out for the future in that regard.

Finally, kudos to Jim Butcher for making me care about werewolves for the first time. Just what I needed, another fictional trope to explore...

What I didn't like: In this case, actually, not too much. I thought it might have been a slower start than book one, but that's more than okay with how it ended up. I also still wish these books were slightly longer, if only to flesh out some of the more interesting pieces. I could have read 100 pages of Dresden interacting with the demon, but if it means it has to stretch out over 15 books? I'm okay with that, too.

I noted after Storm Front that this was more a dessert course for my literary meals, and this is largely true. With that said, Fool Moon definitely felt more substantive than its predecessor, and I am even more excited to jump into the next volume.

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28 September 2013

Review: Picture Me

Picture Me
Picture Me by Lori Weber

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's absolutely a place for those quiet, thoughtful types of books for kids. Some are done really well, like with Cynthia Lord. Others are good but not always for me, like with Linda Urban. Lori Weber's Picture Me tries to be that sort of quiet and thoughtful book, but doesn't really hit the mark.

The story is more about bullying and dieting and the impacts of self-image among teen girls. Spurned by reading a poem in class, the story follows Krista coping with social implications, with her own weight, and so on. There's bullying involved as well, because of course there is.

This largely ends up being a book that's about a lot of things that are hot button issues, but without a real cohesive point, it feels muddled. Krista isn't especially likable or sympathetic, and the bullying feels mild compared to other books that handle it. It tries really hard, but just doesn't work.

I will almost certainly look for more books from Weber, as there's something here. This book, unfortunately, just didn't work at all.

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24 September 2013

Review: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A 2 for motive, a 4 for scholarship.

With the kerfuffle about the interview on the Fix website regarding Aslan's credentials and the ensuing craziness that surrounded it, I went into the book kind of thinking it was a shame that a possibly interesting read was overshadowed by a nothingburger controversy. Then I read the intro, which at least gives the impression that this is a book less about Jesus and more about a man coming to terms with the "othering," as it were, he felt regarding faith, religion, and Christianity in the United States. That doesn't always lead itself to good scholarship - in fact, I can't say I've ever seen it come to that.

With that said, the book itself is interesting. Jesus is the central figure, as it would have to be, but the meat of the book, and the best parts, are the more contextual histories of the era and the time. It's definitely a look at the historical Jesus as opposed to the spiritual one, which explains a lot of the outrage, but the key points are getting that contextual era straight, and that's where this book succeeds. It's a very basic look, and probably won't be news to people with some information already, but still a different read for people who might have needed it.

Can I recommend it? Depends on what you're looking for, to be honest. I can't speak significantly for the actual scholarship, as this was never really my area, but in terms of history positioned in a certain era, you can absolutely do worse.

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19 September 2013

Review: Night Film

Night Film
Night Film by Marisha Pessl

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think you might understand the feeling I'm about to put in front of you. Imagine something you really enjoy, something that isn't perhaps your main area of interest or employment, but it's a pretty deep interest nonetheless. One day, you're doing what you do, and you trip up on something really bizarre and definitely related. It stops being an interest, it ceases its existence as a hobby, and becomes a little more all-consuming. It may only happen for a short time, but you probably know this encompassing feeling pretty well from time to time.

Night Film is that feeling.

On its surface, Night Film is a standard journalistic detective novel with some modern flairs. The book peppers the story with a lot of fake found document-type stuff along the way - darknet webpages, online news articles, old Polaroids, and so on. They help illustrate the story of the daughter of a famous movie director who, following a public dark period, killed herself in a warehouse. What starts out as a simple investigation into a famous death becomes a rabbit hole of reclusive actors and filmmakers, dark magic, and the secret underbelly of the internet.

What's great about this book, beyond the fact that it's a mystery that was able to grab me very early on and keep me hooked, is how quickly it plays with perception and reality. It's impossible to know quite where things are going from scene to scene, the ability to trust anyone, from the narrator to the characters involved, disappears in a way we don't normally see in modern fiction. The stuff going on is genuinely creepy and would fit in well with any modern discussion of so-called "weird fiction." The book bends all sorts of genres and succeeds in not feeling overdone even though the book is about 600 pages long. It's a fast-paced, suspenseful burn.

To give away the real joy of this book, though, is to give away the ending, and even then...this is ultimately something that has to be experienced. It has to be experienced because I truly believe that anyone could find themselves in the shoes of McGrath, our "hero" as it were, for something of their own. The allure of falling into a story, the temptation of being completely consumed by it. Marisha Pessl makes it scary, and that's where the fun starts out.

I never got around to reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a book very well-regarded that I've had on my shelf for years. Night Film has ensured that that it will be read sooner rather than later, as Night Film is really one of the best things I've read this year. Great for fans of a good mystery, but rock-solid even for those lovers of genre and the underbelly of society on a whole. Definitely highly recommended.

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16 September 2013

Review: Theatre of the Gods

Theatre of the Gods
Theatre of the Gods by Matt Suddain

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As someone who enjoys big, bombastic science fiction space operas, I've been waiting for a long time for Matt Suddain's Theatre of the Gods, which I first heard of ages ago and was able to read an advance copy of recently even though I'm unaware of any United States release date for it. Theatre of the Gods is indeed ambitious and expansive, with a very unique narration and narrative structure, but ultimately falls underneath its own weight and becomes a little messy and haphazard.

The story, in three parts, involves an explorer on a ship with an incredibly differing group of people as a crew. There's a space Pope they're fighting. Some creature called "The Sweety." It's almost pointless to try and derive an overarching plot from this, because part of the ambitiousness of this book is the small mini-tangents that the book and the crew go off on before what ends up being a semi-epic confrontation right at the end.

The downside to the book is, unfortunately, the scope and ambitiousness. With so many moving parts and so much going on, it's very difficult to keep tied together from time to time, and the narration (which I could not stop hearing in the voice of Cecil from Welcome to Night Vale) is interesting enough to almost pull you out of the proceedings a bit. With such an epic scope, it ends up being a little frustrating for things to not go the way one might expect in terms of a more linear narrative. A lot about this book is just difficult, and not in a good way.

My issues with Theatre of the Gods is ultimately one of too much in one place. Suddain is clearly a very talented writer, and I will almost definitely try out another one of his books, but I wish I had proceeded with more caution on this one on a whole, as it ultimately left me cold and frustrated.

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09 September 2013

Review: The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses

The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses
The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses by Kennedy

My rating: 0 of 5 stars

If you're a certain age, you probably hit the sweet spot of MTV - a little after the network finally solidified its image, but before the scourge of things like Total Request Live and the end of the animation block. For me, I probably started watching around 1993, which means I was too young to know much about the personalities of the VJs like Kennedy, but old enough to know who was who at the very least. Kennedy was probably my favorite, if only because she came across to me as the misfit toy of the group - not a model, not a comedian, sort of the nerdy type who wandered in and ended up getting a gig on TV. Now, today, she's a political spokeperson in libertarian circles, and she put out a book about her time at MTV, so I dove right at it.

The meat of the book is effectively the story of Kennedy at MTV. It trades back and forth between anecdotes about working at MTV, getting hired, getting fired, the Beach House, and so on, and contrasts it with some talk of the bands she met of the time, her personal relationships with many of the people involved, and so on. It's a lot of confessional, a little "look how cool I was," and a lot of topics over the 300 pages.

What worked for me was that there were a lot of interesting stories. She spent a lot of time with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and you get a different feel for him than perhaps the popular sentiment would represent. In what might be the biggest reveal, we get an admission from the lead singer of the Goo Goo Dolls that their hit song "Name" was actually inspired by and about Kennedy, which is stunning. A lot of other interesting pieces about various musicians, and a surface-level inside look at MTV in general? It's not bad, especially in the short chapter bite-sized chunks it comes in.

I do wish the book spent more time on some of the aftermath. I do wish we had a more in-depth look at MTV's operations. Some stories, like the ones with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, feel like they're missing key information that should have probably been disclosed later on. The book's hyper-focus on MTV was a little disappointing, and Kennedy was way too focused on her virginity in the old stories. Really?

Overall, I enjoyed the read. It is far from perfect, but as a fun nostalgia trip, especially as someone who was right in MTV's wheelhouse during a time when Kennedy was on, and as someone who was young enough to not know what anyone else really thought about her? Absolutely worth my reading time.

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Review: Guitar Notes

Guitar Notes
Guitar Notes by Mary Amato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very impressive read overall, and at times one of the better contemporary YA books I've read recently.

The story goes back and forth between a musician who's faltering at being a good student and is kind of coming off the rails a bit, and a good student who is kind of coming off the rails a bit in terms of being a good musician. Lyla's great, in fact, and could do some prestigious things with her cello, but something's not really right. Meanwhile, Tripp, our guitar-slinging oddball, is having trouble at home and school, and finds refuge in a practice room at the school. Trading days with each other, the two strike up a friendship and perhaps something more along the way.

This feels like the setup to a bad teen romance, and it's really not. It's a lot deeper than that on a lot of levels, and one of those rare books for those in their early teens that would probably be beneficial for their parents to read afterwards as well. There's a lot to be said about friendship, about priorities, and about listening to yourself and to those around you, lessons that don't really come across too often in fiction period.

The last quarter threw a complete curveball that was especially heartbreaking, and really changed the game in this book from being a pleasant read with some nice concepts to a book that was indeed something much, much more. When a book can already be pretty great and move into a brilliant territory for a time, that's worth something.

Highly recommended for everyone. This is one that's going to stay with me for a while.

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28 August 2013

Review: The Thrilling Adventure Hour

The Thrilling Adventure Hour
The Thrilling Adventure Hour by Ben Acker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a live, scripted podcast that has a bunch of comedy stars and actors doing a more modern take on old-style radio. Last year, they launched a Kickstarter to do a graphic novel, among other things, and this collection is the end result. It's probably my favorite podcast, so diving right in made a lot of sense for me.

The good? The stories stay true to what we already expect from the minds behind Thrilling Adventure Hour. Some of the stories (like the "Moonshine Holler" short) are lifted straight from the podcast, others seemed new to me. It's fun to see a lot of the characters as they're envisioned, as opposed to knowing the actors who are portraying them on the podcast. The art is fun and incredibly colorful as well. As a fan, I really have no complaints.

The bad is that, while this can act as an entrypoint for new people, I can't imagine this drawing in a new audience. It's almost too good a portrayal in that regard where many of the jokes and catchphrases work because you hear it in your head, not because it necessarily works on its own. I want everyone to read the graphic novel, but they kind of have to listen to the podcast first for this to make a lot of sense.

Either way, I'm happy, and that's enough for me. Very glad this turned out well, and hopefully this won't be the last time we see a print version of the show.

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20 August 2013

Review: The Passage

The Passage
The Passage by Justin Cronin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So one of my favorite things is Lost. For the most part, Lost threw a lot of weird conspiracies and curveballs and plotlines at you, and kept you guessing while (until the last season, maybe) keeping the pedal to the floor in terms of reveals and activities. Television studios have spent years and millions of dollars trying to find "the next Lost," never quite getting there, when I personally think that the "next Lost" already exists in book form, and it's The Passage.

The Passage is effectively a book that's about 1/3rd "prequel" and 2/3rds story, where the first third exists mostly to set up the universe that exists for the rest of the story. In a sense, the first part is more compelling than the second if only because things move at a faster clip and we get a lot of answers to go along with the pile of interesting characters. The second part is very different, and has a much different feel to it, but essentially exists to justify the first part and to keep us locked in place after we're reined in. It's a government conspiracy, it's a sci-fi epic, it's a bit of a horror thriller, it's a survival book...it's a lot of things, and it somehow keeps all those balls in the air in spite of its complexity.

I don't want to give away the core part because, frankly, had I know the basic point, I would have never picked the book up. In terms of the specific subgenre it sits in, I can't think of a better modern novel that covers it, nor can I think of anything that comes close. That's how strong this is, and I'm kicking myself that the years and years of people demanding I read this book were unsuccessful, because I absolutely loved it.

The Twelve came out somewhat recently, and I'll be looking into that sooner rather than later. If you have interest in a good, modern story that will keep you off guard and just devour you, pick this one up. So, so glad I did.

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18 August 2013

Review: The Map of the Sky

The Map of the Sky
The Map of the Sky by FĂ©lix J. Palma

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few years back, I won a copy of The Map of Time through Goodreads, a time travel book that was more an homage to HG Wells than anything else. What started as a strange tribute to The Time Machine ended up being a really compelling story regarding fringe science, quackery, and misdirection that I absolutely loved. When I saw that The Map of the Sky was announced, I quickly preordered it and then basically forgot to read it for a year. Having some time on a plane, I finally gave it a shot, and I'm frankly kicking myself that I didn't just read it right away.

This essentially takes place in the same universe as The Map of Time, a few years later. In this case, the book we're acknowledging is War of the Worlds, the classic alien invasion tale. We spend a lot more time with HG Wells as his story inspires love, impacts Edgar Allen Poe, and throws the entire world into disarray.

I can't speak more highly about this book on a whole. The translation is expertly done, as the tone and the lyricism of the book certainly comes across in English. Once again, as with Time, the story is a great homage with a lot of fun twists and turns along the way, and if you have any love of War of the Worlds (which I do), the nods to the story and the reaction, as well as how the rest of this story goes, is sure to excite you.

I can't say this was better than The Map of Time, as it was different in a lot of ways. But given how great both books are, having to wait much longer for the final volume in this trilogy (which one has to assume will either be about The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau) is going to be tough.

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Review: Shakespeare v. Lovecraft

Thanks to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, there has been no dearth of mashup novelizations as of late. While transferring characters from one universe to another has gone on for ages, as has retellings of classic tales, it's only when Quirk started its little cottage industry did things really start to ramp up. As for me, some of them I really love, and some I don't. Two of my favorite things in the world are William Shakespeare and HP Lovecraft, so when I saw that there was a mashup novella that applied the Cthulhu Mythos with the works/characters of Shakespeare, I had to ultimately dive in and give it a shot. The end result? Well...

17 August 2013

Review: The Returned

The Returned
The Returned by Jason Mott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 4.5.
There's often a danger in science fiction where there will be a significantly solid concept that just flops in execution. This happens more in film and television than books (see how questionable Under the Dome has been on television, or the countless sci-fi flops on the big screen), but there are still plenty of books I've read, or tried to read, that seem to have a great idea that simply doesn't work over a novel length. Sometimes it's the prose, sometimes it's just that the idea is fully formed solely as an idea.

The Returned, in a sense, is the opposite of Tom Perotta's The Leftovers. Instead of a situation where there's a rapture and people randomly disappear, we encounter a world in which the dead, many of which have been gone for a long time, are coming back. Children, adults, all in different places, often nowhere near where they died.

A great concept, but the good news is that the execution is just as good.

The book works because it's a good story that's done in a literary-enough way without being too overbearing. It's accessible while still not abandoning its rots in the sort of science-fictiony landscape that it exists in. I compare it to The Leftovers because it feels a lot like that book in terms of how the plot is presented as well as how the characters and the world within the story reacts to what's happening. We have a few families we follow, and the "main" family, as they were, remain compelling as well as unpredictable, much like the world the they live in.

Mostly, though, I enjoyed the story because of its readability and its ability to give some background to various Returned people without overwhelming the story with too many characters or too much craziness. It's direct and it doesn't waste any time, and I have to respect that.

If I have a criticism, it's partially that the way the book ended felt more than a little out of step with the rest of the book, and that the promise of more character-based interaction at a pace similar to the prequel shorts that were released did not arrive in this book. The appetizers posted are great, and did more to get me excited for the book than any others of their type so far, but the book is different in tone and structure. In both cases, however, this is based more on my personal preferences than actual flaws in the text. It's a good read.

If you're not one for genre fiction, this won't turn you off. If you are one for genre fiction, you'll enjoy this story as a simple and strange tale that I hope gets a lot of great attention and a broad readership. Highly recommended.

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12 August 2013

Review: No Return

No Return
No Return by Zachary Jernigan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've more than occasionally struggled with the type of book Night Shade puts out (or, I guess I should say, put out), in that they tend to be very well-written, but with higher concepts than I prefer combined with descriptive, often flowery writing that appeals to a number of fantasy readers, but isn't always what I'm looking for.

On one hand, Zachary Jernigan's debut was getting a lot of good press and some solid reviews from bloggers I like and trust. On the other, it was another Night Shade title that came out right before things combusted. The book finally ended up in my library system, so I gave it a shot, and it was well worth the wait.

The concept is pretty high and bends the fantasy genre fairly significantly. We have a world where there's a god that many people fight over, mercenary warrior types, alchemist astronaut magicians, the whole deal. There are battles to be waged, discoveries to be made, and so on. It's very detailed and there's a lot going on for such a short book.

Why No Return works better for me on a whole than other books like it is because Jernigan hit the balance between plot and world building perfectly. There's a good deal of sex in the book, but none of it seems gratuitous and it all seems purposeful to fill the character roles that the world that's created here demands.

In a way, I kind of wish there was less plot so I could just enjoy what was going on in the setting itself. This is not to take away from the story, which has two competing plotlines that are both equally interesting. I loved the idea of mages in space, I thought the warrior battles were interesting and fun to read as well. The plot is, overall, the only place where things do get dragged down a bit, only because the language and descriptions are so detailed that it ends up with a "get on with it" quality from time to time. It wasn't nearly enough of an issue for me to throw in the towel and say "enough," but I can imagine it being a turnoff to many who may prefer the "grimdark"-style or a more straightforward narrative.

Otherwise, a great debut by an author I can't wait to read more of, in a setting I hope he doesn't leave behind. Definitely recommended for fantasy fans looking for something a little different.

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